Something strange seems to be happening with the volatile Catholic vote. Circumstantial evidence is starting to accumulate that Kerry does better when he's attacked by the conservative Catholic Bishops.

The polls have shown the white Catholic vote shifting back and forth throughout the election. As best I can tell, there have been two moments when the trend was in Kerry's direction.

The first was in May when Kerry pulled ahead for the first time in the Gallup polls. At the beginning of that month, Bush led among Catholic registered voters 51% to 45%. By the end of the month, Kerry led 51% to 44% -- even though Bush's ratings were going up.

May? Why May? That was before the Democratic National Convention, so it wasn't that. It was before the debates, so it wasn't that.

May was when we saw a big increase in press coverage of conservative Catholic bishops discussing the possibility of denying Kerry communion because of his pro-choice views.

Subsequently, those bishops went quiet (or stopped getting national press coverage) -- and Kerry's support among Catholics slumped. A Pew poll released October 4 had Bush leading among white Catholics 49% to 33%. That represented growth from Pew's September 28 poll which had the Bush-Kerry split at 49% to 39%. (In 2000, Bush won the white Catholic vote by 7% points (he lost the overall Catholic vote, which includes Hispanics, by 2%).

Then the October 14 ABC News poll had Kerry making dramatic progress among white Catholics.

Kerry's favorable vs. unfavorable rating among white Catholics before the debates was 36% vs. 50%. After the debate: 50% vs. 41%. Yes, Kerry improved across the board, but the shift was more stark for white Catholics than just about any other group the poll measured. (By comparison, his standing among women improved from 41%/42% up to 53%/38% after the debate)

Why would Catholics have reacted more positively to the debate than just about anyone else? It's hard to know for sure but my hunch is that it was Bob Scheiffer repeating the charge from Bishop Charles J. Chaput of Colorado that voting for Kerry was a "sin" -- and Kerry's response.

Why on earth would being attacked by a Catholic bishop help Kerry among Catholics?

For one thing, many Catholics may not have realized the candidate was Catholic. Now they do.

Second, it gave him the chance to connect his Catholic faith to something positive, thereby making them feel good about the candidate and about themselves. "My faith affects everything that I do, in truth. There's a great passage of the Bible that says, 'What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds? Faith without works is dead'.... That's why I fight against poverty. That's why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth. That's why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith. But I know this, that President Kennedy in his inaugural address told all of us that here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own. And that's what we have to -- I think that's the test of public service."

Third, and most important, it subtly positioned Kerry as the champion of the "bad" Catholics. The Bush campaign and conservative Catholics have pointed out, accurately, that Kerry's positions are at odds with the official positions of the church.

They view that as a slam-dunk argument that Kerry's is a person of weak faith. That may or may not be true but it also happens to position Kerry as in alignment with the majority of rank and file Catholics who are pro-choice and pro-birth control.

On an emotional level, these "cafeteria Catholics" have been derided by their conservative brethren as bad Catholics, too. They resent it when they're considered insufficiently pious so they have a vicarious thrill when Kerry stands up for their position.

His first sentences after the Schieffer question about the bishops: "I respect their views. I completely respect their views. I am a Catholic. And I grew up learning how to respect those views. But I disagree with them, as do many."

As do many.

At this point, I must admit that my social science techniques are highly flawed. I have shown correlation but no causation. My case is extremely circumstantial. (Have I mentioned that Colorado and Missouri, once thought to be solidly for Bush, are now close again and that the two most anti-Kerry bishops live there?) It could have easily been something else that was moving Kerry's Catholic numbers.

But it does seem to be clear that the public displays of anger by the conservative bishops have not hurt Kerry. Personally, I think Kerry would do himself a favor by going right into Bishop Chaput's hometown and getting himself denied Communion.

That would be a demonstrable step by the church to show Kerry to be a lousy Catholic. And it should help Kerry win the Catholic vote.

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